An Evaluation of Evaluations

In my continuing effort to lampoon a particular conceit of college instruction in the form of that conceit (and they say I learned nothing from Wittgenstein! Or Kafka!), today I bring you my (narrative) evaluation of student evaluations of teaching. (Hint: POOR)

I could not have written this piece without the hundreds of responses I got on Twitter, Facebook, this blog and email, detailing both the heartwarming and heart-wrenching ways in which our students “rate” us when they think they’re anonymous (as I point out in the article, they are rarely truly anonymous).

I’m actually handing out my Spring evals today, irony of ironies–I hope none of my students read the article and then decide it’s open season for being a smart-ass, because those babies are read by the dean! I’m not returning to adjuncting in the Fall, but I haven’t decided on the Spring, and double-haven’t decided on the year after that. I don’t need the money anymore, but I am deathly afraid that my life will have no structure and that I will only wear elastic-waist pants if I no longer work outside the home. I mean technically I can do some of my work at the coffee shop, but why jostle for a spot and risk a Wallflowers playlist when I can have peace, quiet and no firewall right here on my leopard-print chaise?

Of course, I will also miss teaching because I will miss teaching. Teaching is one of my many passions and few gifts. So today when I hand out evals I will say to the students: “These might be the last evals I ever read, because this might be the last teaching I ever do. I hope you will give me something to remember you by.” If that’s a dick drawing, so be it.

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20 thoughts on “An Evaluation of Evaluations

  1. I hope there are many dick drawings. Or complicated landscapes. Or just hearts.

    (I really kind of love eval art when it happens)

      1. So, I wrote this long comment adding my (late) contributions to the eval stories, and it disappeared into the ether. Damnit. I still want to contribute.

        Mine, from the SAME section of beginning language (all from women, who seemed to want to gang up on me):
        -She had terrible PowerPoints
        -She wouldn’t give us her PowerPoints to study from
        -She didn’t even USE PowerPoint!

        Which one was it, ladies? Did I have them, did they suck, or were you mad I wouldn’t send them to you? (Wouldn’t have helped even if I had sent them. Did they think having copies of activities that were mostly in the textbook would help them study?)

        My friend got: Commie pinko bitch, trying to infect us with her liberalism.

        I got: I didn’t know this was a women’s studies class! (I made the error of pointing out how men vs. women were portrayed in a pop song).

        My favorite: “This class was WAY harder and had WAY more work than my friends in other sections of this class had. Totally unreasonable and way too hard.” The funny thing was, this student was my only detractor this semester. The others said things like, “This was, by far, the hardest (language) class I have ever taken, but I learned SO much.” And, what makes it even better, is whiny student then asked me for a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program. hahaha (In fact, this student was one of the only ones who was absent a lot, didn’t turn things in on time/completely/at all, and was generally a lump in a chair in class.)

        My other favorite, for other reasons: “I really hate linguistics, but Prof. X was really awesome, so that made it tolerable.” Ha! :)

        I may be giving out my last set of evals this next week. I may pull a Schuman and ask them to give me something to remember them by.

  2. I’m on board with many of your criticisms, but I’m cautious about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve actually learned a lot about what is and isn’t effective from student evaluations, with the following caveats:

    1. Student evals can’t be treated as a measure of teaching effectiveness – rather, as with all pieces of evidence, they have to be interpreted in light of your own knowledge and experience about your subject matter and about student learning.

    2. The numerical values are mostly worthless.

    3. You have to do something to encourage students to take the comments portion seriously. One thing I’ve done is to specifically mention to students that 1) their comments are anonymous and 2) that I take them very seriously and appreciate specific feedback both on what was and wasn’t effective for them individually.

    4. I’m a straight, white, gender-conforming cis-dude with an authoritative looking beard and no obvious disabilities, so I obviously benefit from some unfair advantages in this department. Which is all the more reason to treat these as tools for becoming better teachers rather than direct measures of effectiveness.

    The most useful comments I’ve received so far came from the year I taught at Clark University. I’m not entirely sure of the explanation, but I think it helped that the evaluations were proctored by the department’s work-study students. My guess is that this contributes to the idea that what students think matters, and that it’s about contributing to their college community, rather than simply an opportunity to sound off against their professor. Of course there were still beard-related comments and mutually contradictory comments (e.g. Student 1: He only ever did lectures; Student 2: I liked our frequent small-group discussions), but there were also a number of specific and informative comments representing the variety of student experiences in the class.

  3. I’m tempted by but not altogether on board with the prospect of students identifying themselves of evals (and while I have a sense of which students wrote which evaluations, I can’t always be sure). Also, yes, students know their grades are submitted before you read the evaluations, but will they be willing to sign up for a subsequent course with the same instructor if anonymity goes out the window? Not always and I don’t blame them either–lots of academics with tendencies to hold on to petty grudges. I have gotten some constructive feedback and critique in some of my evals (as well as plenty of feel good constructive praise) and think those insights would vanish if anonymity is not allowed). All that said–I do see how the elimination of anonymity would help restrain the moronic comments.

  4. More seriously though, I have GOT to start telling my students to write their names on their evals, purely as a courtesy. (Though I definitely think this would also be a very productive way to engage dialogue.) I’m a language teacher, which means that I read their handwriting approx ten thousand times during a semester. Anonymous schmanonymous. And I truly stand by what I say to them which is essentially: “if my teaching is not working for you, tell me.” Tell, Me. I will work with you.

    I had a painfully shy young woman write the most devastating eval I had ever received purely because she did not like my method of randomly calling out students for answers. Turns out no one liked that. But I had been teaching for about three minutes, had received no training, and had NO IDEA that what I thought was a productive method for getting them to respond in class was turning the into insecure, anxious piles of mush.

    And they don’t realize that they have SO MUCH AGENCY in my classroom and in my teaching methods if they would just speak up respectfully. While I think evals are essentially useless, as a brand new teacher, they have been immensely important to me, because I haven’t the faintest clue what their experience of the classroom is until the middle or end of the semester when I get that feedback.

    Anyway, all that is to say, great piece, enjoyed reading it!

    1. I have had students come talk to me in office hours about what was and wasn’t working for them, and it was the most productive thing that has ever happened to my teaching.

      1. Can I ask how you cultivate the kind of environment in which students would feel comfortable doing that? After reading your articles I’m curious about your classroom. Or maybe you have addressed this elsewhere…

  5. One of my professors passed out his own evals 3~4 times mid-semester. Had the secretary collect and type to avoid handwriting. Addressed all the substantive comments next class.

    Great teacher. Still the hardest fucking class ever (thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.) 20% of the class failed. (First thing he said on the first day: “Some day I might drive over a bridge or fly on an airplane you built. I don’t curve.”)

    1. The only thing I object to about this is “his secretary.” Though these days said evals would be online so you wouldn’t need to rely on a poorly-paid and subjugated admin staff to do this.

  6. What I hate is when the evaluations report stacks your scores up against a departmental or university average. Even worse is when it gives you a percentile–scoring 5.5 out of 7 can still put you in the 20th percentile, so instead of being a moderately successful teacher, you’re a loser.

    Evaluations hit contingent faculty the hardest. You’re teaching a class for the first time to students you don’t know in a totally unfamiliar institutional context, but being measured against people who are teaching a course for the 20th time. Worse yet, you invariably get saddled with the pedagogical nightmares that no one else wants to teach. That ugly bridge course that the department can’t fix until the guy who designed it retires? Yeah, that’s yours. The seminar outside your field that you have no business teaching, but it conflicts with the golf schedule of the guy who should be teaching it? Yeah, that’s yours, too. And the students will hate you for it.

  7. I agree that student evaluations tend to be unhelpful. Students often respond emotionally, rather than critically. But reviews can lead to fun stories like this:

    One angry student on an online review site once said I was sexist and only gave good grades to the boys in the class. I don’t think I’m sexist, but I was worried that maybe the student had a real point, so I actually checked my grade book and no… my grades happened to be higher for the girls in that class.

    A few semesters years later (mind you, I teach a lot of second language speakers with weak English skills) at the end of the semester, a non native speaker came up to hand in his final exam. He handed it over and said “Ms. X, I want to say thank you. You are good teacher. Also, I read reviews online before I take this class. I see what someone said about you. I want to say, you are not sexy at all.”

    And to think, had the first student not tried to take out some unknown vitriol on me, I’d never have been able to tell this wonderful story, which makes me chuckle over 10 years later.

  8. I teach at a private pre-K to 12 school, and we do student evaluations for high school classes. I have found them, overwhelmingly, to be done thoughtfully and to provide helpful feedback. Some of this is for reasons a university would have trouble replicating – we have 50-60 students in a grade and less than 20 in a class, and we interact with them much more outside of the classroom. And for all that the evaluations are “anonymous,” if anything too offensive found its way on there, the student would probably end up punished for it. With that said, I think there are certain elements that lend themselves to more productive student evaluations (much of this does echo Derek Bowman’s points above):
    1) No number scales – we ask yes or no questions (not even sure if that is necessary), with a space below each for comments.
    2) Unless there are serious concerns about a teacher, only the teacher sees the evaluations – he or she would then summarize them for the department chair. That way it is about ways to improve the teaching and the class, not about judging the teacher.
    3) We do our evaluations mid-year – when there is still plenty of time to adjust teaching methods for a class. Of course, to do this you need a) for students to trust that their grades won’t be affected, and b) for teachers to be willing to adjust their teaching methods (and for students to believe that they will). I can see the latter, in particular, being a problem at many universities – even if it’s not true for very many professors, I think the perception is that university professors tend to be stuck in their teaching methods and unwilling to change.
    4) Like Derek, I always talk about how I value their feedback and that it helps me make the class better for the rest of the year and for future years. I sometimes add my own informal evaluation, or just discussion reflecting on the class, at the end of the year. This year, when I taught a new elective course, I made up my own supplement to the evaluation to address issues specific to the course and how I had taught it.
    5) There will always be contradictory opinions; this often just means that students have different learning styles, not that the feedback in general isn’t valid. Sometimes, it means you’ve hit a more or less appropriate balance, but it can be interesting to reflect on why the difference of opinion arose and if there is anything you can reasonably do to support those students more in their learning.

    Ultimately, I think the most important piece is for the university to send a clear message that it values student evaluations. Step 1 is a careful reevaluation of the system with faculty and student input. Once a good system is in place, there could be a message from the president or an appropriate dean to the student body before evaluations are given discussing their purpose and the students’ role and responsibilities in their learning and in the community of the university. This could then be reinforced by the faculty themselves when giving the evaluations, as in #4 above.

    Part of the value in student evaluations is that they ask students to reflect on what and how they have learned in a class, which is itself a valuable element of learning. The more we can do to encourage students to take advantage of that opportunity, and not blow it off, the more all parties will benefit.

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